Alfredo Roces’ retrospective spanning the years from 1947 to 2019 opened last February 15 at Finale Artfile. The mood during the opening night felt more like a joyous reunion among family, friends and collectors, most of whom have known the artist for years.
The show’s 100 still lifes revisit a genre just about forgotten and obscured by the abstracts, folkloric themes, and social realism common to the present art scene. Depicted are the usual subjects: plants, flowers, objects, fruits, etc. Alfredo’s compositions, however, reveal his varying style and thoughtful staging.
He eschews gimmicky gestures, preferring instead to draw viewers to the mood of the moment in which the paintings were created. Tender, in the case of a meal interrupted; humorous in the apple floating by a window; perplexing in a tableaux of green apples laid before a religious icon contained in glass, a child’s glass marble nearby. Make of it what you will, but the artist will be happy if the viewer experiences, according to his own notes for the show, “the pleasure and release that I had in creating each and everyone.”
Alfredo’s art enhanced the opening night’s intimate atmosphere, much like a languorous setting in a genteel home. Dressed simply in a crisp striped polo and loose black trousers for the reception, he appeared at ease in the surroundings.
Alfredo was born to privilege. He is the son of successful businessman, Rafael Filomeno Roces and the former Inocencia Reyes, sister of Far Eastern University’s founder, Nicanor Reyes Sr.. The marriage spawned nine sons, three of whom became writers, including former Dept. of Education Secretary Alejandro Roces, who was honored with a National Artist for Literature award. Alfredo, the youngest, was more interested in art.
“By all means,” Alfredo grinned, when I asked if we could start the interview a day before his retrospective show’s opening. Soft-spoken, slight of build, and very engaging, the artist-writer, affectionately called Ding by friends and family, seated himself in a cushy armchair in the gallery.
“My father knew I wanted to paint,” Alfredo began casually, “so he arranged for private tutoring with U.P. professor Dominador Castañeda. I was trained as a painter starting in 1947, when I was about 15 years old.”
After finishing his high school at Far Eastern University, Alfredo moved to the US where he obtained his Fine Arts degree at Notre Dame University in Indiana. He took an extra year studying at the Art Students League with famed Dadaist George Grosz (“an artist that I admire”) as his teacher.
The young graduate would return to Manila in 1957, determined to establish his name as an artist, or so he had hoped. “Originally I turned to writing because I couldn’t make a living as a painter,” Alfredo said, laughing at the thought.
The original Tisoy
Being a writer-journalist-artist in Manila was a tough calling, Alfredo soon found out. Between 1957 to 1972, he juggled working for the family business with writing books and daily columns for his cousin, Joaquin “Chino” Roces, founder and owner of Manila Times. He would even add teaching as one of his occupations.
“I used to teach humanities sa FEU in the early years; humanities... art appreciation. One of my students is Nonoy Marcelo, the cartoonist. In fact, are you familiar with Tisoy? He used my face (tracing his profile with his fingers); but of course I was much younger then ha ha ha!”
Art would remain an obsession with Alfredo, probing various media to expand his practice. Apart from painting, he dabbled in book design and illustration, to include drawings that appeared in the book Of Cocks and Kites, penned by his brother, Alejandro. Unknown to most, Alfredo designed the iconic Cultural Center of the Philippines logo which was inspired by the font of the Katipunan flag. That early work, an adaptation of an old motif, already showed the artist’s experimentalist slant.
But like most things in the Philippines in the very early 70s, things started to go sour in his life and career with the declaration of Martial Law.
Marcos and his tsutsuwas
He went on self-exile in Australia in 1977, having no other choice but to leave the Philippines. “I used to write a daily column for Manila Times for twelve years. So, of course, you write every day, and you comment on what’s happening. Then [Ferdinand] Marcos took over. When they closed Manila Times, they also made life difficult for me.”
“They” meaning Marcos and his circle of yes men, or tsutsuwas, as Alfredo dubbed them in a 2009 entry in his blog, In My Studio. In the entry, titled Filipino Heritage - The Untold Story, he described the ludicrous —traumatic for the artist — incident that led to his departure from Manila.
During the early years of Martial Law, Alfredo was at work on Filipino Heritage, a 10-volume book set that chronicles Philippine history and culture from the Stone Age up to the Philippines’ independence from colonial rule in 1946. As demanded of the time, a representative from the publisher, The Hamlyn Group from Australia, presented a mock up of the project to Marcos himself for approval.
While looking through the mock-up, Marcos spotted Alfredo’s name in the staff box. As described in the artist’s blog, Marcos threw a hissy fit, exclaiming “ROCES! ROCES! ROCES!,” his voice escalating upon the realization that the books’ editor is one of his most vociferous critics.
Later on, the publishers would receive the order to change Filipino Heritage’s editor via a letter that came straight from Malacanang. “HE, MARCOS,” Alfredo said emphatically, “wanted to be editor.”
Alfredo told his publishers, “If you make Marcos editor, you will sell millions of copies. I’ll step down, and you can make him the editor.’” It was not to be. The Hamlyn Group stood by Alfredo, and proceeded to plan for the book’s launch beginning with an announcement of the tome’s production.
“So there, we had a little problem. And they [Marcos and his tsutsuwas] blackballed Filipino Heritage. When we tried to launch it at the Cultural Center of the Philippines — and everybody came, from the writers, the press, the publishers from Sydney— there were no lights! So the publishers got the message that Marcos was telling them.”
To add to the humiliation, the CCP sent over a billing.
That wasn’t the last of Marcos’ full bore intimidation. With Alfredo’s passport confiscated by the Department of Foreign Affairs, he couldn’t travel anywhere; not to Thailand to attend a seminar in a Buddhist seminary, or to Yale in the US to pursue a grant. Filipino Heritage’s publishers decided its best to move production to Australia, with Alfredo staying on as the editor.
Nakalimutan ka na nila. It’s time to re-introduce yourself.
Since 1977, Alfredo has been living a quiet life in Sydney with his wife, Irene. He became Australia’s Geo Magazine’s editor-in-chief for twelve years, during which time he taught himself photography “so I can save on company expenses.” He continued to paint, and learned pottery.
In retirement, a bit of writing and more art fill Alfredo’s days. “That’s what I like to do. I remember a letter by Fernando Zobel to Lee Aguinaldo, in which he was talking about his work. [He said]’ I spend 10 percent of my time painting, and 90 percent of my time talking about my art, making people accept my art.’ So I feel, I want 90 percent painting [breaking into laughter], and minimal time trying to sell. I’m much happier that way.”
Frequent visits to the Philippines give him the time to reconnect with friends and relatives, and keep him plugged in to happenings in the art scene. It was during one of his trips when the idea for the retrospective was brought up by Finale Art File’s Vita Sarenas, who told him “Nakalimutan ka na nila. It’s time for you to re-introduce yourself.”
I don’t put my pain in my paintings.
It’s surprising that, given his experiences, Alfredo’s art isn’t political at all. “No, no…,” he said softly. “As a writer I can pour all my ideas in my writing. And then, I can be playful as an artist. I find that it freed me, so I don’t put my pain in my paintings. I do once in a while, and I sometimes do serious things, but I prefer to paint things that I enjoy. I like simple things,” he said, allowing himself a smile.
He exploited that freedom by pushing his boundaries, unconstrained by dictum, technique or style, as he was wont to do right from the start of his practice.
“Now this,” referring to the art on show, “what you see here is just still life. But I paint abstracts, figures, portraits; I do sculptures, assemblage, and other experimental work. So if you mix them together, people will get confused. I remember one critique after one exhibit we had—I think it was at the CCP. Anyway, what he said was, ‘When you look at the paintings of Mr. Roces, you have to ask: will the real Mr. Roces please stand up.’ He got confused...ha ha ha.”
Alfredo explained why he wasn’t able to establish his name in Manila’s art world. “Ah...your painting also requires a lot of marketing and networking, and those are my weak points. Especially because I write. I write about other artists and how great they are. I cannot go on and say how great I am. Sobra na yon! Ha ha ha!. The other point is marketing — you have to have a fixed style that everyone can recognize, that is so-and-so, this is so-and-so… And I’m not like that, especially with my painting, because I like to experiment.”
Discovering digital art
At the show, a digital series (which the artist created using an app called Procreate) surprised some guests. Even more remarkable is the fact that Alfredo taught himself the technique. “When I discovered it, I found that it was just like painting, you only have to learn which buttons to push. And there are advantages and disadvantages,” he excitedly said. For one, it’s not yet widely accepted, he pointed out, since it’s “easily duplicated, therefore people feel that there is no value whatsoever.”
Fishing an iPad from his bag, Alfredo proceeded to demonstrate digital art’s advantages. “Like for example, if I do several steps, I can also undo, which is very hard [in traditional painting] when you erase because it’s still messy. Then … ah...if I wanted to do a detail, I can [zooming in on a portrait in his iPad], I can do that,” he said gleefully, “which I cannot do in manual painting.”
He searched some files in his iPad. “I want to show you ‘[something],” he said, “because this is interesting.” Alfredo proceeded to play a video generated by the Procreate app, which shows a portrait’s progression from start to finish. “This is the driver I was sitting with in the car. Of course, the driver doesn’t move – he is a very good model – because he has to pay attention to the traffic.[With the video] I can retrace my steps!”
He continued to demonstrate various functions, and how the app allowed him to create uniform strokes, which on the other hand, is also a disadvantage: “You see, in the case of computers, you don’t have the free will of the brush or your hand.”
There’s still hope for me
At age 86, Alfredo hasn’t lost his sanguine attitude, his boundless curiosity, nor his candor. Of the local art scene, he observed big changes.
"First of all, they [today’s artists] are highly motivated by the market, rather than the critics. Before, if you get good critical reviews, you will get yourself established. But now, people say ‘if this sells for x million, then the artist must be very good.’ Collectors are also thinking in terms of investments. I noticed from the young artists, they’re heavy on content with very strong sentiments. And the colors are quite vivid, and busy. And they create larger works. As you can see, my works are very small."
Click on the image below for slideshow
Alfredo Roces’s “Still Life Fruits, 1958”, oil on board, 17 x 24.
Alfredo Roces’s “Still Life with Hibiscus, 1959”, oil on board, 15 x 20.
Alfredo Roces’s “Pink Shoes, 1959-1960”, oil on canvas, 22 x 30.
Alfredo Roces’s “Pechay, 1976”, watercolor on paper, 16 1/2 x 20 ¼.
Alfredo Roces’s “For Vincent, 1993”, oil on canvas, 12 x 16.
Alfredo Roces’s “Paksiw Picasso, 1993”, oil on canvas, 16 x 20.
Alfredo Roces’s “Blue Bottle and Watermelons, 1999”, oil on canvas, 18 x 24.
Alfredo Roces’s “Still Life with Old Santo, 1999”, oil on canvas, 31.52 x 47.28.
Alfredo Roces’s “Azalea Bonsai, 2002” oil on canvas, 12 x 16.
Alfredo Roces’s “Red Hibiscus, 2012”, mixed media , digital-giclee on canvas, 16 1/2 x 20 ½.
Alfredo Roces’s “Epiphyllum Clown, 2019”, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 35 1/2.
Marcos Roces with Arch. Toti Mendoza.
Raul Isidro and Petty Benitez.
Narciso “Chit” Pineda (with his daughters) and Jesus “Susing” Pineda.
Ramon Viola with friends.
Maridol Mabanta and Ofie Viola.
Arch. Toti Mendoza and daughter Tessa.
Irene Roces with Annie Roces and friend Miguel.
Office Gelvezon Tequi flanked by Vita Sarenas and Sylvana Diaz.
BenCab with Manny Baldemor.
Though he’s gained some recognition for his art (and his books, four of which have been recognized with awards), the artist admitted that he still can’t live off his paintings. “Although slowly, I hope it will change because nowadays they’re paying less for a book, for example, that would take a year to two years to do. But one painting will take you just a week or so at the most. And if you hit that particular market…”
Last year, Alfredo took part in a charity sketching session. “I joined for the fun of it,” he said. “I was able to do five drawings, and they got sold. So I said, ‘Oh, there’s still hope for me!’ Ha ha ha!!”
Photographs by Daniel Soriano